|SAN JUAN, April 2 - La Unión del Pueblo Entero has now helped 500 immigrant students successfully apply for Deferred Action status, meaning they can legally work in the United States for the next two years.
The first of the 500 students to learn she is now legal is 21-year-old Julieta Paredes of Port Isabel. Asked if she is proud to be the first among LUPE’s 1,000-plus applicants to secure a temporary green card, Paredes said she is proud, period.
“I am just so glad that I finally got a chance to be here without worrying about deportation or getting a job legally. I was already in school but now I am in school and I do not have to put a zero, zero, zero when asked for my social security number. Now I have one. I am just proud,” said Paredes, a student at the University of Texas at Brownsville.
Paredes is thinking of going into education when she leaves college, perhaps becoming an ESL or Special Ed teacher. “I am not sure yet. I might do both. I feel I can do anything now,” Paredes said.
Like so many undocumented students, Paredes, whose family comes from Veracruz, Mexico, was brought into the United States without the proper paperwork unknowingly. “I was six when I came here. I did not know what legal or illegal was,” she said.
Paredes lives with her mom and stepdad in Port Isabel. She has lived there for the 15 years she has been in the U.S. Her father still lives in Mexico. Her stepdad is a taxi driver and her mom works at a local restaurant.
Asked if she was surprised when she heard the news about DACA being introduced, Paredes said: “I was watching TV and my sister called me and she said, hey, turn the channel. I turned it and I started listening (to the President) and I started crying. I thought, oh my God. It seems like it is not a big deal to most people but when you are in this situation it is the best thing that can happen to you. It is just two years but it is so much more to us. It is hope. It is a big deal.”
Before President Obama announced his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order last June, Paredes admits she was drifting through college. Now that she knows she can work she has a lot more drive and focus.
“I knew I wanted to be someone. I knew I wanted to go to college but I was not encouraged to finish fast. I thought, I am not going to be able to work, why rush through it. I was taking it slow, I was taking semesters off. I was getting discouraged, actually. Then, that (DACA) happened and it motivated me to finish and do something. I am ready,” Paredes said.
DACA offers administrative relief from deportation for two years. Although successful applicants can reapply for a further two years, a future presidential order could end the program just as quickly as it started. In the meantime, Congress could pass comprehensive immigration reform, and specifically the DREAM Act, which would allow students like Paredes the chance to become U.S. citizens. Asked if she is concerned the law could change again Paredes answered, yes.
“I worry about it but I hope that something better is coming. I hope that something more permanent is there for us, like the DREAM Act. I am hoping. That is why I have got involved with LUPE, to help get this passed. If not, all our hopes are going to go to the floor again. We will be crushed,” Paredes said.
Paredes says her advocacy work for immigration reform with LUPE includes urging friends in a similar situation to apply for DACA status.
“My friends say, no, I am not going to apply because after the two years they (the government) are going to know where I live. I say, don’t be scared. You are scared now, what worse can happen? You need to apply, take the opportunity because you never know. Something better is going to come and if the DREAM Act is passed we are going to be the first ones there. We need to do it fast,” she said.
A comprehensive immigration reform bill could be introduced in the next few weeks, according to U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina. Asked if she had a special message for members of Congress, Paredes said: “Consider us because we are a lot of young minds ready to give back to our country. We have been calling the United States home for so many years. We want to give back. It has given us so much.”
LUPE’s community of conscience coordinator is Tania Chavez. Chavez confirmed LUPE has helped close to 1,000 students apply for Deferred Action and has been successful 500 times. She said the non-profit community group continues to get calls from students wishing to apply.
“We are very proud to be a stepping stone for these students. We are just the middle man between immigration and them. For us, though, it does not end with them getting their documents. It ends with them giving back to our community. At the end of the day the students have tremendous possibilities,” Chavez said.
Asked how much demand there is for DACA in South Texas, Chavez responded: “It is huge. Texas is second largest in nation for DREAMers. We believe over 50 percent of the Dreamers in Texas are in South Texas due to the proximity to the border.”
Chavez was mentoring undocumented youth even before the Deferred Action initiative was announced. When she did she said it was heartbreaking to see undocumented Top Ten students say they had no hope of going to college. “There is not enough awareness about SB 1528 and that if you live in Texas you can go to college anywhere in the state of Texas. Because of that bill, our students are going to be at a competitive advantage in the workplace when immigration reform comes because they have been to college.”
SB 1528, authored by then Rep. Rick Noriega, D-Houston, allows undocumented students to go to college at in-state tuition rates. It was passed in 2005 by the 79th Legislature.
Chavez said there has been a lot of misconception in the community as to when the Deferred Action policy will come to an end. “We continue to encourage people to apply. Some of the students might meet all the requirements except education. They might not have completed high school. We tell them, you can go back and get a GED and still apply. It is still a possibility. If they are currently in school and can prove they are in school they can apply. The key thing is to show improvement in school,” Chavez said.